By Tim Gardner
Local governmental leaders, including United States Congress member Virginia Foxx, who represents District 5, which encompasses Avery and Watauga counties, and the Avery County Board of Commissioners, are encouraging the United States Senate and Foxx’s fellow-House (Congress) members to help pass the National Park Restoration (Legacy) Act that will include funds for needed repairs to the Blue Ridge Parkway.
The Blue Ridge Parkway is located in the central and southern Appalachian Mountains, and includes long stretches of roads through Avery and Watauga counties. The Parkway is one of the most visited units of the United States National Park System. The Parkway is 469 miles long and its staff maintains and manages 554 miles of paved roads, 147 miles of unpaved roads, 26 tunnels, 180 bridges and a network of road related infrastructure including culverts.
The Parkway is facing challenges in managing and maintaining the motor road and associated infrastructure. Currently, the Parkway has a maintenance backlog of approximately $500 million, about $300 million of that is for road projects. With heavy visitation volumes and the aging of Parkway infrastructure, one overarching question becomes how to continue to provide a safe and pleasant experience that visitors from near and far have come to expect while traveling the Parkway.
Recently, Reps. Will Hurd (R-Texas), Derek Kilmer (D-Wash.), Colleen Hanabusa (D-Hawaii), and Dave Reichert (R-Wash.) introduced legislation to make real headway in addressing this growing list of repairs. The National Park Service Legacy Act, the House companion to an identical Senate bill introduced earlier this year by Sens. Mark Warner (D-Va.) and Rob Portman (R-Ohio), would allocate up to $500 million annually, through 2047, to the Park Service from existing revenues the government receives for oil and natural gas royalties.
This bill, if enacted, would provide urgently needed relief for the federal parks. If left unchecked, these repair needs will only grows, and can mean fewer visitors and subsequent impacts on the surrounding communities that depend on these parks for their economies. National park visitation generated nearly $35 billion for the U.S. economy last year while supporting more than 318,000 private-sector jobs.
A similar bill for National Parks improvements was introduced in the Senate in 2017.
Rep. Foxx, the Avery County Commissioners and other governmental leaders on national, state and local levels want the Senate and Congress to continue to push back on President Donald Trump’s budget to make sure agencies charged with protecting some of America’s top resources, from the National Park Service to the Environmental Protection Agency, have the funding they need to carry out their mission and maintain the nation’s parks well into the future.
Rep. Foxx sent a letter dated November 30, 2018 to Speaker of The U.S. House of Representatives Paul Ryan, its Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy and Minority Leader (Democratic) Nancy Pelosi supporting the legislation.
In that letter, Rep. Foxx wrote: “For years, Congress has been aware that a backlog exists for maintenance projects at the National Park Service (NPS), I have long been an advocate for appropriate funding for the park service and believe the longer we wait to address the maintenance needs of our parks, the worse and more expensive the problem gets.”
Rep. Foxx also encouraged Congress to act on the legislation in the next couple weeks, as she added in the letter: “There is still time to take action on this issue, and I write to express my strong support for bipartisan legislation that funds NPS maintenance needs and to request that legislation be brought for consideration prior to the end of the year (2018).”
According to a spokesperson in Rep. Foxx’s office, the National Park Restoration Act still has not moved since it was introduced in the Senate, although it is just one of many bills that have been introduced to protect park funding this Congressional session. Despite having majority support in both the Senate and Congress, the bill has not passed as leadership in both chambers, along with top appropriators; still have to weigh in more deliberations about it. That may make it unlikely that the bill will become law in the near future. And President Trump’s threat to shut down the government unless funding for the border wall he wants between the United States and Mexico is approved, has threw more uncertainly in the consideration and passage of bills.
The Avery County Board of Commissioners adopted a strongly-worded resolution in support of the National Park Service Restoration (Legacy) Act, encouraging Congress to create a “reliable and predictable stream of resources to address deferred maintenance needs in America’s National Park System.”
Avery Commissioners include: Martha Hicks, Chairperson; Blake Vance, Vice-Chairman; Tim Phillips; Wood Hall (Woodie) Young, Jr.; and Dennis Aldridge. Their resolution reads in its entirety:
WHEREAS, America’s National Park System is a living testament to our citizens valor, our nation’s hardships, our victories, and our traditions as Americans, and has been called “America’s Best Idea;” and
WHEREAS, the National Park System preserves the diversity, culture, and heritage of all Americans, and serves as a living classroom for future generations; and
WHEREAS, in 2016, the National Park Service celebrated its centennial, and currently manages more than 400 nationally significant sites and an invaluable collection of more than 75,000 natural and cultural assets that span 84 Million acres across all 50 states, the District of Columbia, and several U.S. territories and insular areas; and
WHEREAS, North Carolina is home to ten national park units, including Cape Hatteras National Seashore, Moores Creek National Battlefield, Great Smoky Mountains National Park, and the Blue Ridge Parkway
WHEREAS, Avery County is a gateway to the Blue Ridge Parkway, and benefits from the tourism associated with visitors to the park and the improved quality of place for residents;
WHEREAS, the National Park Service’s mission is to “to conserve the scenery and the natural and historic objects and the wild life therein and to provide for the enjoyment of the same in such manner and by such means as will leave them unimpaired for the enjoyment of future generations;” and
WHEREAS, in 2016, the National Park System had more than 331 million visits, including 15.2 million along the length of the Blue Ridge Parkway; and,
WHEREAS, in 2016, National Park Service estimates indicate that park visitors spent more than $980 million in the communities along the Blue Ridge Parkway, supporting an estimated 15,600 jobs; and
WHEREAS, the National Park Service has the obligation to preserve our nation’s history; promote access to national parks for all citizens; stimulate revenue to sustain itself and nearby communities; educate the public about America’s natural, cultural and historical resources, and provide safe facilities and environs to enjoy these resources; and
WHEREAS, in 2016, the National Park Service estimated a deferred maintenance backlog of $11.3 billion, including $261 million along the North Carolina section of the Blue Ridge Parkway, which consists of repairs to aging historical structures, trails, sewers, thousands of miles of roads, bridges, tunnels, and other vital infrastructure.
WHEREAS, it is the responsibility of Congress to maintain America’s national parks to ensure our natural places and our history is preserved and documented for future generations, and for the adjacent communities that rely on the direct and indirect economic benefits generated by visits to national park sites.
NOW, THEREFORE, BE IT RESOLVED BY THE GOVERNING BODY OF THE COUNTY OF AVERY that the County of Avery urges Congress to create a reliable, predictable stream of resources to address deferred maintenance needs in America’s National Park System, and to ensure that federal infrastructure initiatives include provisions to address park maintenance.
The National Park Service (NPS), which turned 100 years old last year, manages more than 400 national park units-iconic landscapes, historic and cultural sites, trails, military battlegrounds, monuments and memorials-throughout the country. According to NPS statistics, national parks received more than 331 million visitors, generated $18.2 billion for local park gateway communities and supported 306,000 jobs in 2017.
But as a result of aging facilities, strain on resources caused by increased visitation and unreliable funding, the NPS has been unable to keep pace with park infrastructure repairs. Based on 2015 data, the agency estimates it would cost nearly $12 billion if it were to fix all of the items on its deferred maintenance list.
One of the Blue Ridge Parkway’s most pressing needs is new pavement. The Parkway uses national industry standards to gauge pavement life -approximately 20 years. According to that benchmark, the Parkway should be paving approximately 18.5 miles of road per year. Through the first 55 years of the Parkway’s existence, or until about 1990, this life cycle was being maintained. Since that time, funding for paving has decreased, leaving the Parkway with many road sections that are currently 21 years or older. The Parkway currently has 235.3 miles of pavement that is 20 years or older, of that 194.8 miles is 30 years or older, creating an enormous maintenance backlog. The cost to repave the miles over 30 years old ranges from $155.8 million to $233.8 million, depending on the type of work needed done.
Parkway officials also estimate that it would take 4,147 gallons of yellow paint to double stripe the length of the motor road itself, comparable to painting approximately 1,000 homes. When the mainline “motor road” was designed, it was broken into 44 sections; those road sections range from 5.5 miles to 15.6 miles in length.
Funding for main line “motor road” paving comes through the Federal Lands Transportation Program (FLTP). The Parkway competes with all the National Park System units in the Southeast Region (SER) for roads funding. SER gives approximately 25 percent to each of the three big road parks (Great Smoky Mountains, Natchez Trace, and the Blue Ridge Parkway) and the remaining 25 percent goes to the other 50 plus parks in the region. The Parkway receives an average of $7.7 million per year, which funds about two paving projects. To begin decreasing the deferred maintenance of the road, the Parkway would need to fund about 4 projects per year–double the work that is currently being completed annually.
In addition to the motor road, the Parkway has numerous spur roads, service roads, campground and picnic area roads, which amount to an additional 56 miles of paved roads. Regional funding also pays for projects on these roads with the exception of campground roads. Some of the campground roads are nearing 50 years in age and are literally returning to gravel with numerous potholes and drainage problems, making travel difficult and unsafe for vehicles in some places.
The national parks face maintenance challenges in large part because Congress has not made them a funding priority, with the entire National Park Service budget making up just one fourteenth of one percent of the federal budget. In 2015, the Park Service received less than 60 cents out of every dollar it needed just to keep the repair backlog from growing. President Trump’s proposed budget for the agency, includes the largest cut to the agency since World War II, includes even further cuts to park maintenance.
If these repairs continue to be left unchecked, National Park officials fear it could eventually mean fewer visitors and subsequent impacts on the surrounding communities that depend on these parks to help their economies.
In 2017, Republican senators with competing bills to tackle the National Park Service’s deferred maintenance backlog, which was then identified as a top priority for the Trump administration, reached a compromise on a single measure.
The bill from Sens. Portman and Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn., took pieces from each of the senators’ previous bills to create a new trust fund to pay for national park improvements with revenue from energy production on federal lands. With endorsements from the U.S. Department of the Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke and leading parks advocacy groups such as the National Parks Conservation Association, the new legislation had momentum to move through Congress and pass.
Co-sponsors include Sens. Warner, Angus King, Independent-Maine, Shelley Moore Capito, R-W.Va. and Cory Gardner, R-Colo.
The legislation would have established the National Park Service Legacy Restoration Fund, an account within the federal treasury that would receive half the money from energy activities such as offshore oil and gas leasing or onshore solar panel development on public lands that do not have other federal financial obligations. The bill would have capped the funding at $1.3 billion each year for five years to provide money specifically set aside for backlog maintenance.
The fund also would have established mandatory spending for the projects, taking it out of the congressional appropriations process.
Under the bill, based on the receipts from federal land energy activities in fiscal 2016, the trust fund would see half of the $2.2 billion in unobligated money taken in from that fiscal year. And with the Interior Department’s “energy dominance” directive, that level is likely to be even higher in the coming fiscal years.
Portman and Alexander had competing legislation to address the deferred maintenance backlog that eventually bubbled to the surface of a Capitol Hill rivalry during a Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee oversight hearing in April, 2017.
Portman’s previous bill would have set an amount of funding from revenue paid to the government by companies extracting minerals and other resources from federal land. However, that bill was not the Trump administration’s preferred alternative.
Alexander’s bill, based on the proposal included in the Interior Department’s fiscal 2019 budget request, would have directed to a trust fund with mandatory spending half of the money derived from public land oil, gas, coal and renewable energy revenue above a 2018 baseline of $7.8 billion. The fear, though, was that proposal could never see money if the revenue did not go above the baseline.